Happily colliding worlds of Nanny at the AWP Conference

I don't know if I've ever told you much about Nanny and Papa's house. Oh sure, bits and pieces here and there. How it sat in both sun and dappled shade on a corner lot at Moss and Division streets. About Papa's blackberry patch out by the old shed, and the towering pecan trees in the side yard by the Duhon's house, and Nanny's flowers all over. 

Maybe I've told you that white wooden house was where my mom and her siblings grew up, and where Nanny lived for more than sixty years until she died there, in her bed, at the age of 92, Mom right beside her.

It's the house where I, in many ways, grew up too. It's where we used to shelter for hurricanes threatening Lake Charles because it had always withstood even the strongest ones. It's the home in which we gathered for countless Sunday lunches of spaghetti and roast, salad and French bread, tall glasses of Lipton iced tea, and pie or a cheesecake or Crown Jewel or Nanny's lemon-lime refrigerator sheet cake.

Perhaps what I've not mentioned is that the property included four or five apartments, some separate from the big house and others attached to but not part of it. Nanny and Papa let those apartments for helpful supplemental income, and when Papa died, Nanny continued to keep the places rented.

The extra money was great, but I also liked that Nanny seemed to attract some really special tenants who became much more than simply renters. At some point, the head of the writing program at McNeese, the university in Lake Charles, started sending graduate students Nanny's way. The early referrals became a self-perpetuating means of keeping the apartments full.

One MFA student, a thirty-something named Neil, approached Nanny fourteen or fifteen years ago, and asked if he could rent an apartment month to month rather than signing a year-long lease, which was her standard first-year requirement, due to some personal concerns. Never one to turn down any sincere ask for help, Nanny said yes. 

Neil stayed for eighteen months, and during that time became close to Nanny. She adored him, and although I didn't live in Lake Charles anymore and so never met Neil, I nonetheless felt I knew him. I knew that he met and married a wonderful woman and that while still in town, they had a son. Nanny loved getting to know his expanding family.

After Nanny died, Mom told me about the beautiful letter Neil had written her describing why Nanny had meant so much to him. His words rang familiar to so many she had touched and made happy over the decades.

Fast forward some, and because the Association of Writers & Writing Programs' (AWP) 2017 conference was slated for DC and I learned of this on the last day of early bird pricing last fall, I registered. When the schedule was announced, I flipped through it like the eager ever-student I am.

Thursday, February 9, noon: Beyond "Show, Don't Tell"
Neil Connelly, Cheryl Klein, Shawn Stout, Kekla Magoon.

Certain that Neil was the Neil from the white wooden house at 601 Division, I emailed Mom. "Yes!" she replied, "I'll put y'all in touch."

I reached out to Neil several weeks ago. He is now an English professor at Shippensburg University and has published eight books. "Neil, I'd love to put a face with the name I've heard about in such fond ways all these years. Might we steal a moment at the conference?"

"Emily, I write you from my office at Shippensburg, looking up at a picture of your grandmother, whom I adored." he replied.

I sat with his lovely note, looking around at the many photos of Nanny peppering my home, her vibrant smile the first thing anyone notices in any of them, and thinking of how special it was that yet another person (for there are many out there) in this big, diffuse world loved and missed Nanny too, and continues to keep her near. I was so touched, but I wasn't surprised.

This morning, after getting the kids ready for school, quickly pulling together a not-mom outfit, and shoving some pens, notebooks, phone charger, and snacks in my "professional bag," I hopped on the Metro and headed downtown, attempting to get there, check in, and make it to the first panel on time.

Being at AWP feels somewhat like being in Vatican City. You're in a small, densely-populated humming city-state: it's overwhelming, but in a way I like. 

The first panel was absolutely great, and then I texted Neil to check in. I'm in the Book Fair at booth 575, he replied. The Book Fair, let's say it's the Vatican within Vatican City, is not small, but sooner than not, I was at 575, sharing a smile and hug with a kind man who once lived in the apartment abutting Nanny's house. 

We found seats at a nearby table and reminisced. 

"Your grandmother and I used to sit on her back steps and talk. About tough stuff or nothing at all. And she would really listen, with no judgment."

That very trait, the true listening and hearing with no judgment or superfluous commentary, is one of the things I most loved about Nanny. I told Neil how much I missed Nanny still, and as I teared up, he said, "She's a person worth crying over." Isn't that a profound compliment? I think I'll remember that simple phrase forever.

He told me that once he moved out he continued to send students to Nanny but with this head's up: "You'll get a place at a good price, but you need to help Florence. Take out her garbage, check in on her, don't upset her."

Nanny took care of Neil, but he took care of her too, and I am so grateful for that. Imagine if we all looked after each other in such ways.

When Neil's first son was born, he and his wife would take him to visit. "To this day when Owen eats a peppermint patty, he thinks of your grandmother's house and how much he liked it there." 

I do the same. So do Jack and Oliver. Nanny always had York mints in the middle drawer of the buffet in her living room, and usually Starlight mints as well, those hard white-and-red peppermints. Maybe some Werther's too, but not as regularly.

"That front room had such great natural light. And high ceilings and those gauzy drapes in the windows." And like that I was back there again, sitting in the recliner across from Nanny's, watching the birds come to the feeder suction-cupped to one of the windows sheathed in translucent fabric, rolling around on the ancient carpet and feeling the familiar highs and lows of the slightly buckled wood floors underneath.

I remember when Jack was little, or was it Ol?, he'd lay quietly on that carpet and run his hand back and forth across the pile. Feeling, noticing, exploring. 

"Once, early in my and Tom's relationship," I told Neil, "I took him home to Lake Charles for a visit, and while there, my parents were trying to figure out how to affix Nanny's recliner to a wooden dais. I can't recall why, but it needed to be sturdy and firmly attached. Tom is an engineer so he got right to helping, and I remember thinking he'd really passed a test. He could see that we all adored Nanny and wanted to do anything for her, and he jumped in to do the same."

The time came to go our separate ways, and I asked if we could take a picture. Though I don't believe in an afterlife, I have to think that in some way, Nanny saw us and smiled her radiant smile.